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Scrap metal divers brave hazardous river

Update: January, 19/2014 - 18:09

Leap of faith: Dung (standing) and Minh during a diving trip to grope for scrap metal at the bottom of the river. Dung clenches a plastic tube in his mouth connected to an oxygen tank before jumping into the water. — Photos Dai Viet

by Dai Viet

Every day, barefoot divers in HCM City, nicknamed ‘'otters'', dive to the bottom of the Sai Gon River flowing through the city in search of scrap metal.

Bui Quoc Dung, 35, and Le Ngoc Minh, 33, who live in the An Khanh ward in the city's District 2 are two such "otters" who frequently dive into the river.

Their equipment for diving into the Sai Gon River includes a small motorboat, a can of fuel, a rope, a plastic tube used as a snorkel, and an oxygen tank. They have no masks, flippers or diving suit; they don't even have the necessary equipment for administering emergency aid.

Last month, the writer accompanied the two 'otters' on one such diving trip. Driving their motorboat towards the Ba Son shipyard in the city, Dung and Minh dropped an anchor into the water. The anchor was connected to the boat by a long rope, about ten metres long.

Findings: Dung grips a piece of iron.

Dung jumped into the water, clenching a plastic tube in his mouth. The tube was connected to an oxygen tank that was meant to supply air.

While Dung was underwater, Minh remained on-board the boat to ensure the tube worked properly. With this diving technique, the diver must rise to the water's surface every ten minutes.

"I just follow the anchor rope to the bottom of the river and search for scrap metal. If it is too deep, I just hold my nose and strongly breathe out through my ears to reduce the water pressure," Dung explained. "If I touch a piece of iron, I put it in my jersey and resurface."

Not surprisingly, Dung's jersey, bound by a belt around his hip, is riddled with small holes, providing evidence of being pierced repeatedly by metal objects. He also bears several small scars on his body and hands.

That day, after several hours of diving to the bottom of the river, both men could only collect around eight kilograms of scrap, which could be sold for just VND50,000 (US$2.5).

"It was not a good day for us. Normally, we find dozens of kilograms of scrap iron per day to sell at between VND120,000 and 200,000 ($6-$10). Each of us usually earns VND 50,000-80,000 ($2.5-$4) a day, after deducting the cost of fuel," Minh said, adding that is increasingly becoming more difficult to find.

Both Dung and Minh are skilled at diving, having learnt how to dive in early childhood. With no other skills to earn money, they opted to become 'otters' to collect scrap at the bottom of the river.

Scant profits: After several hours of diving, they found only eight kilograms of scrap metal, which they sold for US$2.5

Despite the growth of urbanisation on both sides of the river, these divers continue to live in small shacks alongside the river.

"The villages of barefoot divers, which were established in the 1940s, include An Khanh and Cat Lai in District 2, Rach Ong in District 8, Nha Be in Nha Be District, Ben Dinh in the southern province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau and several other locations in the Mekong Delta's Can Tho city," 53-year-old Pham Van Luom, a veteran diver in An Khanh said.

"The divers in my village were trained by their families and never took any professional diving lessons. From what I know, famous divers, including Chau Que, Cuk Ly, Muoi Nho, Chin Mung and Sau Dut, were the pioneers of this profession," Luom added.

Luom was considered one of the lucky 'otters' in the diving village for his success in discovering several underwater fortunes, such as an ancient gold Buddha statue, which he sold for two-and-a-half taels of gold in the 1980s (current value estimated at around VND88 million, or US$4,200), and a haul of 24 cans of mercury valued at 240 taels of gold, or VND8.4 billion ($400,000).

"Another diver, Pham Van Thanh, once found a Buddha statue weighing two kilograms, currently worth VND70 million ($3,300), near the Binh Loi bridge," Luom said.

However, diving does have its risks and several divers are injured while diving. The more serious injuries even prevent them from diving ever again. Any complication that occurs while divers are deep below the water could lead to serious health problems and even death.

"My brother died and my brother-in-law lost his legs after finding a 105mm gun at the bottom of the river eight years ago," Minh recalled.

Recently, several divers have been hired to work for construction projects, such as constructing bridges that have a foundation deep below water. In fact, most of the bridges and underground sewer systems cannot be completed without the help of these divers.

Some divers are hired to work for salvaging companies at a monthly salary of VND10-12 million ($500- $600).

"Several divers suffered severe pain, while others were left paralysed or died when the construction equipment broke down. But, every profession has its risks," Hoang Van Phuoc, a diver for a local construction company, said. — VNS

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